“You can use drag to explore anything you want to,” says Natalie Doidge, the organiser of what is thought to be Scotland’s first “drag school” for teenagers, which opens its doors later this month after facing down controversy.
“Drag isn’t limited to men dressed as women … and this course opens it out to anyone who wants to try it. It’s an exploration of [oneself] – especially for young people at the upper end of high school, when your life is just beginning and you’re thinking about who want to be. Gender is a performance, after all.”
Doidge, 23, has devised the five-day course along with King Dalby, 22, as part of Dumfries Youth Theatre’s summer programme. Both grew up in the town, are trainee producers at the theatre and want to create opportunities for young people living in rural areas like the south of Scotland.
The youth theatre, supported by the community platform Big Burns Supper, offers summer courses in comedy, dance and costume design as well as the drag school for those aged 11 to 18. It includes sessions on creating a persona, makeup, performance and the history of drag artists going back to the Stonewall riots.
The course is now sold out, with half the places taken up by girls. But it attracted a barrage of criticism, particularly when the organisers initially proposed a similar daytime event for older primary-school aged children.
A significant number of online comments raised concerns about safeguarding and sexualising of children, with some referring to entirely false tropes about LGBTQ adults exploiting educational spaces to “groom” younger people.
Graham Main, the chief executive of Big Burns Supper, underlines that even for primary schoolchildren there is an accepted and appropriate level of LGBT discussion within the curriculum. “We’re experienced youth workers, and we’re working in primary schools on a weekly basis,” he says.
“So we have a thorough and trusted awareness of the approach required. We need to recognise that the conversation around these topics is accelerating so quickly amongst young people in the classroom. This summer event is just about putting a wee flag up to say: ‘It’s OK to be in the chess club, and it’s OK to be in this one too.’”
In a rural area with no designated queer spaces, he adds, an event like this has a ripple effect in terms of young people’s awareness and confidence.
The organisers were planning a daylong drag offering for children aged eight to 11 years, but after the online backlash they adapted it to a one-day LGBTQ youth space, with discussions of heroes and icons and the evolution of the Pride flag, fuelled by rainbow snacks.
The Edinburgh-based drag queen Jordy Deelight, who will be leading the workshops, said shows like Drag Race UK – the Glaswegian Lawrence Chaney became the first Scottish winner in March – have popularised the performance, and young people are also coming to it via YouTubers who are elevating makeup application to an art form.
Dalby adds: “A lot of the complaints were from people who didn’t really understand what drag is. People have this idea that drag is offensive, but it’s not – you can make fun of the ridiculous stereotypes, drag kings with fake abs, drag queens who go incredibly feminine then drop their voice. And then there are drag artists who think ‘Gender is stupid, I’m going to be a robot or an alien.’”